The story seen in the national press went like this: A decade earlier, a writer eating in a Chinese restaurant in Manhattan spotted a diamondback terrapin turtle in a tank, about to be chopped up for soup. The horrified writer, Richard Ogust, stopped the execution, bought the turtle for 20 bucks and installed her in a tank at home, naming her "The Empress." And that started him on a quest to save the world's endangered turtles, to which he devoted ever more of his time and resources. When the national and international media found him, Ogust was portrayed as a somewhat eccentric figure sharing a Manhattan penthouse with 1,200 turtles, including several species extinct in the wild. It became an "only in New York" moment in the entertainment firmament.
But the new documentary The Chances of the World Changing dives well beneath the media's quirky account, revealing a complex story that remained largely untold. In fact, the filmmakers discovered that the writer-turned-conservationist's journey was just beginning.
How could Ogust continue to devote his life to such an all-consuming project? What were the rewards and costs of maintaining his "ark"? What motivates such a latter-day Noah in the first place? The man the filmmakers found was different from the one portrayed in the press.
Dedicated to a cause most would applaud but few would choose to share, Ogust may have fit someone's definition of an eccentric. But his work was anything but quirky; he was deeply engaged in the serious and grueling labor of modern conservation. The evidence of the ongoing slaughter of millions of endangered turtles for unregulated Asian food markets had led him to acquire the largest genetic population of several of the world's most critically endangered species.
Though often eclipsed by more prominent endangered species in the public's eye, turtles are considered "keystone species," whose steep worldwide population decline heralds greater environmental dangers. Responding to this extraordinary crisis with extraordinary commitment, Ogust had joined the ranks of those other driven conservationists who are creating "assurance colonies" of species disappearing in the wild. But even as his collection was achieving prominence in conservation and herpetology circles, Ogust was reaching the point where he could no longer care for such a large group of animals himself. He decided to help create the country's largest nonprofit institute focused on the breeding and safeguarding of freshwater turtles and tortoises, in the hopes of broadening the public awareness of the crisis.
While he was trying to get the institute up and running, a series of setbacks threaten the viability of Ogust's project. He was forced out of his New York apartment, and the promise of land where the institute was to be built was revoked.
His efforts find him living in a tent beside the New Jersey warehouse where he is temporarily housed his creatures as he searches for a permanent home. One land deal after another falls through, and Ogust visibly suffers the stresses of rejection and abandonment. Like other visionaries who have rushed into the breach of a social or environmental emergency, Ogust finds applause easier to come by than financial and material support.
Ogust had hoped to preserve his turtles as a collection, a unique resource for scientists and conservationists, but after his plans for the institute suffered such serious setbacks, it became apparent that he could no longer care for the animals single-handedly. In an unfortunate denouement, Ogust decides he must break up the collection to save the turtles. His painstakingly assembled menagerie is given away to interested preservationists on the East Coast and in the Midwest, through whom Ogust's work will no doubt continue to bear fruit. But it's a dispiriting outcome for such a fine, bold effort.
The Chances of the World Changing is a haunting, visually poetic two-year account of Ogust's attempts to save his turtles and restore his own material and emotional stability. The film begins with a passionate man who has exhausted himself as well as his financial resources, whose former career as a writer resides in the limbo of a storage bin, and whose personal life is almost nonexistent. It ends with Ogust trying to understand his decade-and-a-half experience of an alternative existence as he tries to reconnect with his pre-turtle existence. He is left unable to shake neither the chilling sense of animal species silently slipping into oblivion, and all that goes with them, nor the sheer physical presence and beauty of the animals that had once shared his every hour.
"A film about extinction is really a study of its opposing force: survival," says director Eric Daniel Metzgar of the two years he and co-producer Nell Carden Grey spent with Ogust. "When one is fraught with immeasurable responsibility, an excess of strength, not gloom, powers the day. And that strength, again and again, in the face of all obstacles, is what we filmed. Each day hovered on the next, and from an urgent story emerged a grand narrative."